The Dwarves Review – Coming Up Short (PS4)
As a kid, I read way too many fantasy novels. I constantly had a book by Tolkien in my hands, and was reading about elves battling ogres or something as equally outlandish. This fascination carried over to playing D&D and Warhammer, so I’ve always loved exploring fantasy realms. That’s exactly why I was excited to give The Dwarves a try, a real-time strategy game based off a beloved German fantasy series of the same name.
Real-time strategy games aren’t exactly known for being suited for consoles, but The Dwarves has a pretty decent control scheme here for a controller. Characters are switched by pressing the left and right bumpers, while different special abilities are mapped to the directional pad. Each warrior does a standard attack automatically (similar to an MMO), so the player only really has to worry about watching cool-downs and moving each character. Movement can be done either manually with the left stick, or the player can pause the game with the square button and then tell a unit where to move.
Despite being very complicated, the control scheme does work decently well — at least in theory. The issue is that every part of the game feels super rough. The camera, which is moved by the right stick, is extremely difficult to use, and I often found myself staring at tree branches instead of the action. The movement of the characters feel floaty, and they have a penchant on getting caught up on the in-game geometry. Sometimes, debris from a battle would make it so my characters couldn’t move freely, and then they would get ganged up against by enemies. Sadly, just everything feels mediocre in execution. These problems are also not helped by the fact that the game’s frame-rate would regularly get choppy (sometimes the game would freeze completely), and the screen would regularly tear to the point where the in-game action became disorienting.
Due to these issues, it’s probably not surprising that my favorite moments in The Dwarves weren’t during the combat, but when I was exploring the game’s overworld. It basically takes place as a turn-based board game, and the player gets to move one space each turn. This will lead to other characters moving around (such as merchants and bands of orcs), and there’s a great sense of tension while planning a move. I generally had a destination I had to get to, but making sure I got there safely was up to me.
The really cool part is that there are a lot of random elements that will occur, that reminded me of playing Dungeons & Dragons. Sometimes I would stumble upon a village and it would ask me to look for survivors, and these actions could have consequences. It really felt like I was dealing with a good dungeon master and they were crafting a wonderful world as I went along. These moments often led to either battles or small events where I could gain some items, and really made the world feel alive.
While The Dwarves can shine during small moments, the core mission design leaves a lot to be desired. The issue is that a lot of the missions are really boring in their goals, and I would be told to kill 50 orcs. Facing off against hordes of orcs isn’t interesting, but sadly that comprises a lot of the enemy encounters. It was always about me trying to avoid getting ganged up on, as my characters could die pretty quickly if they were completely surrounded by foes.
Since I had to constantly watch my spacing and where my characters were at, this meant that I constantly had to pause the game, monitor all of the characters in my party, and individually assign their moves if I wanted to have any success. This makes the game move at an extremely slow pace, but I didn’t really have a choice. Every single time I tried to play the game in real-time, I ended up dying unceremoniously (once after actually triggering the success dialogue somehow) since a single character would end up getting ganged up on while I tried to do something in another area. The characters just can’t take care of themselves well enough to survive.
Dying is a big issue in The Dwarves since it means the player has to start the mission over from the very beginning. One particularly annoying thing about when you die is that the game doesn’t present you with an opportunity to go back into the overworld. This caused me a lot of issues when I entered a key battle underleveled, and my only options were to repeatedly play the battle until I was able to squeak it out on easy or load up a save and lose hours of progress. There is an auto-save, but it’s pretty poor, as it only saves in two recent areas. A simple “return to map” option after death would solve this entire problem, but I guess that wasn’t meant to be.
As previously noted, the game’s story is an adaptation of the 2003 fantasy novel by Markus Heitz. Due to this, the world and its characters feel fully realized. There’s a deep mythology full of creatures (such as the terrifying Älfar), and I’m sure fans of the novels will get a real kick out of seeing Heitz’s fantasy world come to life. The issue is that the in-game storytelling isn’t great and if you’re not already familiar with the setting, you’ll likely be confused by all of the in-world mythology that isn’t well explained.
A lot of the scenes in The Dwarves are text-heavy, but they proceed automatically without giving the player a chance to piece the story together. Complicating matters is that there’s no text log that can be brought up, so once a line is uttered it’s gone forever. It’s so easy to miss important information, and that’s really disappointing. Something like an in-game glossary would’ve gone a long way in getting people up-to-speed with the world they are in, and so they can remember the differences between Boindil and Boendal.
It’s strange that the game is presented so poorly, as there’s actually some decent production values sprinkled within. A staggering amount of dialogue is voiced in the game, and a narrator does a really good job of moving things along. It’s too bad that all of this work basically is thrown away by some strange choices (seriously, why do long conversations auto-play?), but these settings hopefully will be tweaked in a future patch.
Coming in Hot
Speaking of patches, the developer says that a patch fixing some of The Dwarves‘ issues (screen tearing and the frame-rate are expected to be improved) is on the way, although it didn’t arrive before the game was being sold on the PlayStation Store. Sadly, it doesn’t really matter a whole lot since the experience is a rough one even if it wasn’t held back by technical hurdles. The issues with the game go deeper than a Dwarven cave, and the developer just haven’t made a very fun strategy title for a console.
Almost everything from The Dwarves‘ gameplay to the presentation seems unpolished. It’s a real shame, since there are some good ideas, and the book it’s based upon is ripe for a video game adaptation. The mission objectives are far too rigid, the controls too cumbersome, and ultimately it’s a game that constantly gets in the way of itself. Every moment of enjoyment was quickly followed by bouts of annoyance, and this title clearly needed more time in development.
Review code for The Dwarves provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4 Pro. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.